WASHINGTON – Republicans had to be happy with their position going into Tuesday's battle for control of the House: The Democrats' longshot hopes of taking over rested on sweeping the lion's share of the few truly competitive races.
Though 435 House seats were up for election in campaigns that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, all but a mere three dozen were considered locked up in advance of Tuesday's balloting. Democrats needed to win two-thirds of the competitive contests to take a 218-seat majority.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans seemed likely to make major gains, underscoring a lack of evidence that national debates over Iraq and the economy had provided decisive help to either party's House candidates.
The relatively few contested races swept across the breadth of the continent. There were four in Pennsylvania and five in Texas, plus others in Connecticut, New York, Kentucky, Georgia and Louisiana. Also, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Oregon and Washington.
Republicans held a 227-205 advantage over Democrats in the outgoing House, plus two GOP-leaning vacant seats and an independent who sided with Democrats. That meant Democrats needed to gain 12 seats to end a decade of Republican command.
High-profile House members whose re-election seemed uncertain included 13-term veteran Rep. Charles Stenholm (search), D-Texas, a leading fiscal conservative and power on the Agriculture Committee; Phil Crane (search), R-Ill., a 35-year veteran who heads a trade subcommittee, and Martin Frost (search), D-Texas, a one-time member of his party's leadership.
Democrats faced their toughest challenge in Texas, where state Republicans — guided by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) — redrew congressional district lines to GOP advantage.
Stenholm and Frost were pitted against GOP congressmen, and three other incumbent Democrats were fighting for their political lives against well-funded Republican newcomers. Frost's bitter race against GOP Rep. Pete Sessions was the country's most expensive, a nearly equally split $8.4 million by mid-October.
Overall, around a dozen incumbents from each party were facing competitive opponents, and about a half-dozen seats held by retiring members of each party were considered in play.
The expectation of little overall change also illustrated the rock-solid advantages held by many candidates — mostly incumbents — in fund raising and in districts drawn to favor one party or the other.
If Republicans held control, it would mark the first time they would have had the chamber for a dozen consecutive years since the 12 years that ended in January 1933.
The chamber's top leaders — including Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — were expected to breeze to re-election.
As usual, many House races revolved around local issues and personalities. To the degree that the presidential race and the war, terrorism, jobs or other national issues were prominent, they were generally shaded to regional tastes.
For example, in an effort to show Stenholm could work with members of both parties, one of his ads pictured President Bush and Ronald Reagan.
But in a Connecticut district where Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry was running strong, Democrats aired a commercial in which the face of incumbent GOP Rep. Rob Simmons changed into that of Bush's.
Thirty-six Republicans and 30 Democrats faced an Election Day virtually devoid of tension, because they lacked major party opponents.
For many others, money made a major difference, with most incumbents enjoying a healthy edge over their challengers. And once again, the overall money raised for House races grew to record levels. Through Oct. 13, House general election candidates had raised $545 million since January 2003, the Federal Election Commission said. That was 16 percent above the campaign that ended in 2002.
Most of that growth came from Republicans, whose campaign warchests grew by 28 percent since 2002. Money gathered by Democrats increased by 4 percent.
There was a similar discrepancy at the party level. The National Republican Congressional Committee had raised $159 million from January 2003 through this past October 13, compared with $76 million collected by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Outside partisan groups spent additional millions more for House candidates.